The Cult of Lebowski
If you know as many Big Lebowski fanatics as I do, then you'll probably appreciate the following article...
New York Times: A cult gives its members license to feel superior to the rest of the universe, and so does a cult movie: it confers hipness on those who grok what the mainstream audience can't. Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 hyperintellectual stoner noir bowling comedy "The Big Lebowski," starring Jeff Bridges as Jeff (The Dude) Lebowski, has the requisite exclusivity of a cult classic: it bombed at the box office; it was met with shrugs by many critics who had arguably overpraised the Coen brothers' Academy Award-winning "Fargo" (1996); and it has amassed an obsessive following on cable and video and by word of mouth. Nowadays, quoting its intricate, absurdist, often riotously profane dialogue earns you coolness points in widely disparate circles. Some would even say that the cult of "The Big Lebowski" is going mainstream.
It has a rolling national convention, for starters: the Lebowski Fest, which in June attracted 4,000 followers in Louisville, Ky., and on Friday arrives in New York City. For two days, Lebowski fans (referred to as Achievers) will dress up as their favorite character (or prop, like a severed toe), dig some far-out rock bands at the Knitting Factory, bowl in far-out Queens, imbibe White Russians (and maybe less licit substances) and spend a lot of time shouting lines at one another like:
"This aggression will not stand, man."
"You're entering a world of pain."
"You want a toe? I can get you a toe. Believe me, there are ways, Dude. You don't want to know about it, believe me. Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o'clock this afternoon, with nail polish."
And, of course, the Zen-like sign-off, "The Dude abides."
I suspect this will all grow old pretty quickly and I plan to be at home those nights with my pet marmot. But the festival offers a superb opportunity to celebrate "The Big Lebowski" for being not "Fargo" but one of filmdom's most
inspired farragos - a monumentally disjunctive text that is much more fun to savor a second, third and tenth time, when all one's petty-bourgeois narrative concerns have dissipated like so much marijuana smoke.
The central joke - the raison d'Ítre - of "The Big Lebowski" is a disjunction. The Coens take a disheveled stoner layabout, the former 60's activist the Dude - seen mostly in baggy shorts, sandals, an oversize T-shirt through which his gut is visible, often sucking a joint, mixing a white Russian or lying on his rug with headphones listening to bowling competitions or whale songs - and make him the gumshoe protagonist of a convoluted Raymond Chandler-style Los Angeles mystery-thriller in the tradition of "The Big Sleep."
Robert Altman took steps in this direction in his masterly version of "The Long Goodbye" (1973), but he stuck to the outlines of Chandler's story. The joke of "The Big Lebowski" is that the kidnapping mystery, such as it is, turns out to be a nonstarter.
And so, of course, is the hero, which is why the Coens have paired him with Walter (John Goodman), a hothead Vietnam vet paranoiac with a tendency to wave his gun around over small slights, explaining that he did not watch his buddies "die facedown in the muck" to be, for example, asked to keep his voice down in a diner. It is Walter's sense of outrage that compels the Dude to seek payment for a rug that has been urinated on by goons who seek another Lebowski, the big one, a disabled rich Republican whose ex-porn-actress hottie wife owes money to a smut king, and whose daughter, an arty feminist splatter painter - you see: it's exhausting just getting a handle on the dramatis personae, and I haven't even mentioned the band of German nihilists and their savage marmot, or the purring cowboy narrator who inexplicably shows up in an L.A. bowling alley to order sarsaparilla and tell the Dude, "I like yer style,
Dude." As the Dude himself puts it: "This is a complicated case, Maude. A lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous, a lot of strands to keep in my head, man. Lot of strands in old Duder's head."
But if "The Big Lebowski" is in the tradition of scattershot druggy comedies (represented in theaters at the moment by "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"), it is also the work of disciplined - not to mention show-offy - aesthetes. In virtuoso sequences, the Coens eroticize the sport of fat men, the only sport in which one gains weight, with pins that do sultry, slow-motion sambas and a hooded ball return that's like a mysterious feminine canal. They
stage a surreal Freudian Busby Berkeleyish dream sequence in which the Dude wraps his manly arms around a helmeted Valkyrie (Julianne Moore, with golden bowling-ball breastplates) and thrusts his bowling ball heavenward, the Mighty Thor of Brunswick Lanes.
The Coens turned down requests to be interviewed about the cult of "The Big Lebowski," which is frankly infuriating: I did not watch my buddies die facedown in the muck to be blown off by too-cool, insular, press-shunning elitists.
Fortunately, Jeff Dowd will talk. He's a 54-year-old producer, writer and producer's representative who was the inspiration for the Dude, and who actually goes by the name the Dude, showing up at Lebowski festivals (he is scheduled to be in New York) and signing autographs with "The Dude Abides." The festival's co-organizer Will Russell said that the Dude can drink people a third of his age under the table. "The guy, man, is a party machine," Mr. Russell
"Jeff Bridges only hung out with me once," said the Dude, by phone from Los Angeles."But the body language is, like, 110 percent real, the slouch, all the physicality. My daughter said, `Daddy, where did they get your clothes?' " The Dude is thrilled to have had his fictional counterpart named the 53rd best movie character ever by Premiere magazine - ahead, he pointed out, of Stanley Kowalski, Rocky, Sam Spade, Tony Manero of "Saturday Night Fever" and
even George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life."
But he wanted to add that the Dude of "The Big Lebowski" was short-lived. Although the movie is set in the 90's - when George H. W. Bush was telling Saddam Hussein, "This aggression will not stand" - the Dude depicted is the Dude of the late 70's and 80's, when the ideals of his beloved counterculture seemed dead. Nowadays, the real Dude is back in the saddle. He's registering Lebowski fest attendees to vote, and vowed to deliver a gift basket to the Republican National Convention containing (according to his news release) "symbolic gifts including an oversize pair of glasses to help the Republicans see what's going on in our country, a copy of the Constitution to remind them of our
rights as free citizens and a bowling ball so they will have something to do for the next four years."
He added: "The Lebowski festival is the tip of the iceberg. It's remarkable how many people from different walks of life see this movie again and again. Not just potheads. There was a Wall Street guy I met who'd drop a `Lebowski'
line into job interviews and if the person didn't pick up on it he wouldn't be hired. I met this commander of a military base. He said they watch the movie down there in the missile silo two or three times a week."
It makes one feel safer already.
Mr. Dude - er, Dowd - likened the Coens to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. They are, he said, social satirists for the age. "People like that the Dude is a guy who is not allowing himself to become a corporate cog," he said. "So even if they are corporate cogs, they can live vicariously."
Like I said: mainstream.
Posted by matt at October 11, 2004 01:18 PM